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The U.S. Chamber of Commerce vs. Democracy

How the Chamber's Stance Against the For The People Act is Bad for Democracy

While millions of Americans across the country demand and fight for a more just democracy that allows all voices to be heard, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce continues to stand in the way of progress. In a recent Chamber letter, the trade association listed its reasons for opposing the For the People Act (S.1.)—the most comprehensive democracy reform legislation in a generation. However, its reasons suggest fear of the accountability that comes with truly representative government and do not stand up to scrutiny.

Below we compare the Chamber’s key explanations for its opposition to S.1 to the realities of the bill.

The Chamber: “Significant portions of S.1 are clearly intended to have precisely the opposite effect [of bringing more people into the political process]- pushing certain voices, representing large segments of the electorate and U.S economy, out of the political process altogether”

Reality: The For the People Act (S.1) would bring countless people back into the political process. The “certain voices” that the Chamber works to protect are not everyday Americans, but the most powerful corporations in the country.

The Chamber: “S. 1 would also usher in a host of onerous disclaimer requirements for those engaging in communications that mention a candidate or elected official, even if those communications are related to legislative issues.”

Reality: The Chamber has long opposed requiring disclosure of the funders who support political advertising and has taken advantage of lax disclosure requirements to keep its donors secret while, in recent years, acting as one of the biggest corporate spenders of money in elections. However, we know that sunshine is the best disinfectant. In his majority opinion in Citizens United, Justice Kennedy assumed that the corruption risk of allowing corporate spending on political campaigns would be tempered by robust disclosure, so that voters could assess corporate political activity. “We reject Citizens United’s challenge to the disclaimer and disclosure provisions,” Kennedy said from the bench. “Those mechanisms provide information to the electorate. The resulting transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and different messages.” Unfortunately, effective disclosure mechanisms do not currently exist – at least not until S. 1 is signed into law. Under S. 1, disclosure would prevent wealthy corporations from anonymously flooding our elections with cash.  

The Chamber: “S. 1 would deem communication by corporations, including associations, to be ‘coordinated’ and thereby prohibited if the organization has even the most innocuous and tenuous of connections with a candidate.”

Reality: The purpose of anti-coordination laws in campaign finance is to root out corruption. Candidates and party committees are subject to contribution limits specifically so that Big Money contributors cannot buy them. When candidates coordinate with super PACs, which have no contribution limits, wealthy special interests can throw as much money at the feet of the candidates as necessary to buy their favor –circumventing candidate and party contribution limits and thereby defeating the point of contribution limits. Political candidates should not be coordinating with big moneyed interests behind the scenes to create a false appearance of significant organic support for its campaign. Enacting stricter laws in this area would allow the public to untangle the web of corporate influence in Washington, thus decreasing corporations’ political power.

The Chamber: “S. 1 would fundamentally transform the Federal Election Commission (FEC) from a non-partisan agency comprised of three commissioners from each party into an overtly partisan enforcement tool controlled by a majority of commissioners from the political party then in power.”

Reality: On the contrary, S.1 would create ample safeguards and protections that would not damage the FEC’s utility, but rather enhance its ability to enforce campaign law for the benefit of all Americans. S.1 would end stalemates on the FEC by decreasing the number of FEC commissioners from six to five and requiring one member to be independent. This change would allow the FEC to open up investigations and hold candidates and political actors accountable. Ensuring that the FEC has the full resources and structure necessary to utilize its enforcement powers is paramount to reducing corruption and protecting our democracy.

The Chamber: “S. 1 would give taxpayer funds to political campaigns by allowing Americans to opt-into having their political donations matched by the federal government. Taxpayer money should be used to support projects like infrastructure initiatives and education programs – not political campaigns”

Reality: The For the People Act’s small donor campaign finance system would explicitly prohibit the use of tax dollars to finance the program. Instead, financing for the public matching funds would be paid for by a new, small surcharge imposed on fines, penalties and settlements paid to the government by corporations or corporate officials who are convicted of a criminal offense, or who pay a civil or administrative penalty. Furthermore, small-donor financing of elections would help ensure that all candidates have a fair chance to succeed in the political landscape without the overwhelming financial aid of the corporate sector. When so many of our nation’s leaders are funded by and beholden to the interests of corporate behemoths, it’s no coincidence that our country struggles to hold corporations accountable and build an economy that works for all Americans.

The Chamber: “[W]e call on President Biden and Republican and Democrat congressional leaders to create a bipartisan national commission with equal representation composed of former elected officials and leading citizens to examine the facts and make recommendations for improving our election system similar to the 2004 Carter-Baker Commission on Federal Election Reform.”

Reality: The assault on voting rights is underway right now. In many instances, proposed restrictions would disproportionately affect BIPOC communities, younger and older voters, poor areas, and voters with disabilities. We don’t have time for a Commission to study the problem. Even just over the last few weeks, the Texas legislature has attempted to push through egregious restrictions on voting. New state laws banning 24-hour voting, prohibiting election officials from proactively sending vote-by-mail ballots, implementing burdensome ID requirements, and limiting early voting are part of a coordinated attack on the ease and accessibility of people exercising their democratic rights.

Now is the time for action.

By opposing the For the People Act, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is throwing its weight behind those actors who are actively working to undermine your right to vote. But the interest in protecting corporations should not be allowed to undermine the interest in protecting democracy for all Americans.

President Biden should support members of Congress calling to delay recess until the For the People Act is the law of the land and not let the filibuster, the Chamber, or anything else stand in the way of protecting our democracy.